Bow thrusters to epaulettes, yacht engineer values mentor’s lessons

Mar 30, 2020 by Dorie Cox

By Dorie Cox

Engr. Allen Dudley is mesmerized by Capt. Jim Horner’s skillful maneuvers at the helm of the 100-foot (30m) Benetti, M/Y Rutli E, in currents, wind and tight situations.

“He has a no-bow-thruster method,” Dudley, 36, said of his mentor, who is twice his age. “If the engine is down and the generator is out, he drives the boat anyway.”

In a career with more resources than he could have imagined decades ago, 72-year-old Capt. Horner is most comfortable when he relies on the basics. He’s been driving boats since he was 9. His father had a marina and he had enough sea time at the helm of tugboats to get his first 100-ton mariner’s license at age 18.

Capt. Jim Horner, left, and Engr. Allen Dudley run the Rutli E fleet. Photo by Dorie Cox

Tall and slim, Capt. Horner appears somewhat the opposite of his dark-haired younger engineer. The captain’s ruddy, freckled complexion has seen years more of life at sea – it was more than a decade before the engineer was even born that Capt. Horner was captain of the Tennesseean Lady, a 70-foot Hatteras, on U.S. inland waters around his home port of Nashville, Tennessee. He still has some relatives there, but most of his family, his wife, three daughters, and five grandchildren are in South Florida.

Originally from Lansing, Michigan, and the Lake Erie area, Dudley listens intently to the captain’s stories, even though he has probably heard them several times. With two years in the yacht industry, he is a sponge for information and appears to visualize the captain’s challenges of towing ships on the Miami River, one year towing 850 of them.

“I learned on 200- to 300-foot tows,” Capt. Horner said. After that, he said, “the yacht is like driving a golf cart.” 

Differences aside, both men proudly wear epaulets on their crisp white uniform shirts. That was something Dudley hesitatingly adopted. He initially preferred a more casual uniform. But as he learned the significance of the anchor and four gold bars, a gold embroidered patch that nearly matches the color of the captain’s hair, Dudley reconsidered. Now he, too, wears his patch with a propeller and three gold bars.

“I now respect my shirt, I see what it means to him,” Dudley said of the captain. “Epaulets are earned.”

The two men have learned to work well together. Capt. Horner and Dudley are the only crew on Rutli E, and maintain the yacht program’s 80-foot Burger, 27-foot Riva, Hobie cat sailboat, racing kayak and a variety of other boats. Plus, Capt. Horner also serves as chef while Dudley makes up the interior staff.

Chicken picante, chicken marsala and pot roast are a few of Capt. Horner’s specialties. “I learned by hanging out in the galley with chefs,” he said.

This busy workload works just fine for the duo. Formerly on charter yachts with experience in free and scuba diving and “everything you tow behind a boat,” Dudley is on his first private yacht and learning new things regularly.

“I’m not the best server; it took a while,” he said of his interior duties. The yacht owner would joke that “the engineer will serve you after he changes the oil,” Capt. Horner said.

The team maximizes the minimum and has learned to work with less. When he could not find workers to rebuild the Riva, Capt. Horner rewired and applied the 21 coats of varnish himself.

“Jim’s doing what he loves; he just happens to get paid,” Dudley said. And he works a lot. 

“I’m never sick, I take no days off,” the captain said. One year, the yacht traveled the United States with stops in 65 cities.

“Our log book looks more like a scrapbook,” Capt. Horner said.

Dudley is grateful to be on the team. He stores the knowledge to become a better crew member.

“It’s good that I work beside him,” Dudley said. “I want to conquer the engine room.” 

And Capt. Horner likes when the engineer has questions. At dinner, the two watch the game shows “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” and discuss their day.

“We really talk,” Dudley said. They have learned to communicate so well that they find they don’t need to use marine radios.

“When he’s looking at me, I know why,” Dudley said. “I like the way he drives. Jim is calm, collected, confident. I see why he’s doing what he does. It makes sense to me. He makes me think.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

View all posts by Dorie Cox →